Sunday, February 19, 2017

When New Embraces Old: Part 2, Incorporating Nature in Design

students studying in Donnelly
UofT is a place of learning—erudite, splendid, yet humble—beautifully epitomizing “new embracing old”. When new embraces old, we get magic. Wizard-magic. Harry Potter kind of magic. The kind of magic that only someone who is open, faithful, and confident can wield. This is ancient magic. The magic that lurks like Reznikoff’s ghost in the ancient halls of University College, or the magic currently wielded at 1 Spadina. A magic borne of wisdom, lore, and story.

Terrence Donnelly Centre
The St. George campus of UofT lies embedded in the city of Toronto, steps away from the upscale shopping district of Yonge and Bloor and not much farther from the bustle of the financial district on King and Bay. It’s a bracing walk to Union Station, where every moving vehicle ends up at some time. UofT sprawls like an amoeba of neutrinos through the parliament buildings of University Avenue, making subtle changes here and there. Recreating the fabric of the cityscape in muonic subtleties.

In Part 1 of my Old / New journey, I wrote about my walk south from the St. George TTC station along St. George to the Galbraith and Bahen buildings, where I teach in science and engineering. I currently also teach in the Bloomberg Health Sciences building on College Street. It lies directly across from a building that has long held my curiosity: the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research (CCBR).
Spiral staircase on 6th floor

Donnelly is where some of the coolest research and discoveries in biomolecular and cellular research are being made. Benjamin Blencowe and his team’s recent uncovering a protein’s sweeping influence on autism last December using introverted mice, for instance. Named after the philanthropist Terrence J. Donnelly, the centre was the vision of UofT Professors Cecil Yip and James Friesen. In the 1990s they foresaw that new genomic technologies would open up progress in biomedical research in a time when there was no human genome sequence or stem cell technologies and DNA sequencing was slow and inexpensive. Yip and Friesen envisioned a collaborative interdisciplinary research facility that, when it opened in 2005, brought together over 500 specialistsbiologists, computer scientists, physicians, pharmacists and engineers—to advance the university's groundbreaking research in molecular biology.

entrance to atrium of Donnelly
Designed by ArchitectsAlliance and Behnisch Architekten, Donnelly is a sustainable, transparent 12-storey building that promotes collaborative research within flexible, loft-style open concept laboratories and social spaces: ideal for interaction and sharing of ideas. "The Terence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research ... is intelligent, unconventional architecture designed through a strong collaboration between local Toronto architects and German gurus of high-technology design," writes Lisa Rochon of the Globe and Mail (2005). "Three faculties—medicine, pharmacy and engineering and applied sciences—agreed to participate, so that biologists might start brainstorming in the same labs along with computer scientists and chemists," Rochon adds.

The centre is located on what was previously Taddle Creek Road. The CCBR building—which from College Street resembles two colourful stacked cubes—is set back by a gradually sloping plaza with granite benches and groves of white paper birch. The building and plaza are flanked by several historic buildings (80-year old Fitzgerald Medical Building to the east; the 1919 Rosebrugh Institute of Biomaterials and 100-year old Lassonde Mining building to the west; and the Medical Sciences Building to the north).
staircase past bamboo garden in atrium

Upon entering the complex, the granite plaza gives way to white terrazzo flooring in an expansive multi-storey atrium. The top lit glass-ceilinged atrium connects the adjacent heritage Rosebrugh building to the CCBR in a counterpoint of techno-minimalism with Romanesque tradition. While clearly expressing its 21st century vision, Donnelly honours the earlier work of Frederick Banting and Charles Best—scientists who discovered insulin in 1921—by sharing its western wall with the brick exterior of the Rosebrugh building, where research into diabetes continues.

Rosebrugh wall in atrium
My eyes feasted on this rich expression of old and new, starting with the articulated buff coloured brickwork—the row-lock brick patterning and tall Roman corbelled arch windows—of the western wall. My gaze swung to the textured green of the giant bamboo garden in front of it; and finally to the sweeping staircase ahead of me. As I walked up the shallow wide steps lined by pillars that reached skyward, I felt drawn to the bamboo forest to my left. Created by landscape architect Diana Gerrard, the garden offers several "picnic" sites of wooden platforms and benches, which I learned had come from the ash, tulip and cherry trees that had occupied the original lane way.

Rochon suggests that "three elements enliven the architecture: landscape, history and natural light. There is an insertion of greenery, not only at the atrium level, but also on three research floors where plantings of black olive trees and a creeping fig create a sense of moderate climates without resorting to palm trees." Standing on the fifth floor of a research corridor that also overlooks five stories down in the atrium, I enjoyed a splendid view of how new embraced old through these elements.
View of picnic nook from 3rd floor

On my way to the elevator on the second level, I passed several seminar and lecture halls. Colour-coded, like much of the building, there is the "Red Room", the "White Room" or the "Black Room", projecting outward into the wide corridor like giant pods with surfaces polished in mosaic tiles from Italy. 

I took the elevator to the twelfth floor to explore several of the research floors, finding several multi-storied enclaves of trees, wooden floors and benches or desks that invited. These staff lounges, along with a system of open corridors and stairwells encourage informal, interdisciplinary contact on which scientific discoveries are built. I wound my way down on a series of stairs that spiraled like a DNA helix and a dizzying zigzag of stairs that hung over the bamboo-forested atrium. Gazing up from a hanging stairway off the fourth floor, I rested my eyes on a researcher sitting at a desk on the fifth floor: she perched over the atrium like a bird on a tree limb. I was reminded of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where interaction is promoted between scientists and researchers of the various disciplines through ingenious design.

View of Donnelly from the west
"That it is a 12-storey, shifting box of transparency is an act of intelligent decisions and of unconventional thinking around what a curtain wall should look like," writes Rochon of Donnelly. Rochon describes the south-facing facade as a double skin of glass, which permits solar and acoustic control and provides a rich transparency on the building's primary face. From within the research offices, it's possible to open and close the inner skin of windows. The exterior
6-story Atrium of Donnelly Centre
glass wall acts "like a big sweater" lined with metal louvres. Each office has electronic controls to operate the thermostat, the light switch and the louvres." The east, west and north facades are glazed with patterned ceramic fritted glass and coloured laminated glass, providing shade and some privacy. The north façade is a curtain wall, providing light into the building; the east has a pattern of laminated coloured glass representing genetic code; the west façade has dotted fritting applied to its glazed panels and is highly transparent to show the colours of Donnelly’s 11 research departments painted on the hallway walls. Gardens are watered via roof runoff, collected by an integrated stormwater system.

Donnelly “is not so much an object as a system that coerces a variety of disciplines to interact,” writes Jiing-yen of the University of Waterloo.



UofT Faculty Club: Every journey requires repast—a place to relax, eat and drink—and my feet naturally directed me to one of my new favourite haunts: the UofT Faculty Club. Located close to the hub of the campus, on Willcocks Street just east of Spadina, the club is open to members who include faculty, staff, graduate alumni and their guests. I entered the 1896 heritage building, built in a Georgian Revival-style, and passed the elegant first floor lounge to the pub below. The pub welcomed me with excellent food, drink and a relaxing ambience. Bathed in rich tones of wood and comfortable chairs and warmed by a cozy fireplace, it reminded me of a Dorset pub I’d visited years ago; full of colourful characters and a well-stocked bar. I felt both at home and like a traveler. Like I’d walked into history with modern comfort. I ordered the beet salad from my friendly waitress; it provided a refreshing and attractive light meal for a mid-day traveller.

What better place to end my journey of “new embracing old” than in a place where “old embraces new.”


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Atwood, Water and The New York Times

“Water Is…” leads Atwood’s Pick for Books of 2016
Microsoft Word - Atwoods Picks-NYTimes.docx
ny-times-theyearinreaingEvery year, near Christmas, The New York Times puts out “The Year in Reading” in which they ask notably avid readers—who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists—to share the books that accompanied them through that year.
For the 2016 Year In Reading, The Times asked a prestigious and diverse readership, including Junot Diaz, Paul Simon, Carl Bernstein, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elizabeth Banks, Samantha Power, Philip Pullman, Ann Pratchett, Orhan Pamuk, Drew Gilpin Fause, Anne Tyler, and many others to share their books of 2016.
There was also Booker Prize-winning and celebrated Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood.
atwood-margaretMargaret Atwood is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature as well as the Booker Prize (several times) and the Governor General’s Award. Animals and the environment feature in many of her books, particularly her speculative fiction, which reflects a strong view on environmental issues.atwood-angel-catbird
Several of her latest works (e.g., Oryx and CrakeYear of the Flood, MaddAddam) are eco-fiction and may be considered climate fiction. Atwood and partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Atwood’s highly popular graphic novel Angel Catbird reflects an environmental sensitivity to the balance between wildlife and humans and their pets in urban settings.
Atwood’s choice for 2016 books came from her active, astute and compassionate environmentalism. Suggesting that many of her 'The Year in Reading' co-readers would emphasize fiction, history and politics, Atwood chose her books “instead from a still-neglected sector. All hail, elemental spirits! You’re making a comeback!”
Here are the four books Atwood recommends and why:
  1. water-is-cover-webWater Is…: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu. “We can’t live without it, so maybe we should start respecting it,” says Atwood. “This beautifully designed book by a limnologist looks at water from 12 different angles, from life and motion and vibration to beauty and prayer.” Water is emerging as one of the single most important resources of Planet Earth. Already scarce in some areas, it has become the new “gold” to be bought, traded, coveted, cherished, hoarded, and abused worldwide. It is currently traded on the Stock Exchange…Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell. Yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach.
  1. hiddenlifeoftreesThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World” (Greystone Books) by Peter Wohlleben. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group. Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.
  1. weeds-mabeyWeeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” (Ecco) by Richard Mabey. “They’re better for you than you think,” says Atwood. “They hold the waste spaces of the world in place, and you can eat some of them.” Ever since the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, weeds have dogged our footsteps. They are there as the punishment of ‘thorns and thistles’ in Genesis and , two millennia later, as a symbol of Flanders Field. They are civilisations’ familiars, invading farmland and building-sites, war-zones and flower-beds across the globe. Yet living so intimately with us, they have been a blessing too. Weeds were the first crops, the first medicines. Burdock was the inspiration for Velcro. Cow parsley has become the fashionable adornment of Spring weddings. Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard Mabey examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them. One persons weed is another’s wild beauty.
  1. birds-and-peopleBirds and People” (Jonathan Cape) by Mark Cocker. “Vast, historical, contemporary, many-levelled,” says Atwood. “We’ve been inseparable from birds for millenniums. They’re crucial to our imaginative life and our human heritage, and part of our economic realities.” Vast in both scope and scale, the book draws upon Mark Cocker’s forty years of observing and thinking about birds. Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics and the environment. In the end, this is a book as much about us as it is about birds.
“Time to pay attention to the nonhuman life around us, without which human life would fail,” Atwood concludes.
As we enter a new year of great uncertainty, particularly on how we and our environment leaf-water drop copywill fare in a shifting political wind, these books offer diverse insight, a fresh and needed perspective and critical connection with our natural world–and each other through it.
Buy them, discuss them, share them. And save this planet.
Happy New Year!
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction

 If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw

At Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

I would submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. I shared my own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, in which I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.


I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.

Just as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).


The self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that: 

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.  In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

In my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.


Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.